“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” H.P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft wrote those words in the 1920s and they are still relevant today – especially in the workplace.
Many of us look forward to changes at work and we often have conversations with our colleagues about how things should be different, yet when things do change we are often terrified and feel uncomfortable. Change is inevitable and necessary these days in order for businesses and organisations to survive and thrive. Sometimes change can be imposed on us and with that may come changes to our immediate boss, team, work priorities and even changes to our role. So we must learn to overcome fear and embrace the changes ahead.
Why Do We Fear and Resist Change so Much?
We fear change at work for a variety of reasons. These fears are often associated with fear of failure, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of criticism and fear of the unknown.
The growing research in neuroscience is proving the belief that “we are creatures of habit” to be very true. We like “Certainty.” Certainty brings with it clarity and predictability, ambiguity which can often come with change activates a threat circuitry in the brain. This can trigger powerful effects on our body and our emotions – which we sometime refer to as “stress.” David Rock, author of the “Handbook of Neuroleadership” explains that uncertainty registers as an error, gap, or tension in the brain: something that must be corrected before one can feel comfortable again. That is why people crave certainty. Not knowing what will happen next can be profoundly debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This can diminish memory, undermine performance, and disengage people from the present.
Dr. Tamar Chansky, author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety” says changes at work are among the top life stressors that one can experience. “How we thrive is through routine and predictability. It gives us a sense of control. When there are big changes, we are suddenly thrown into a state of uncertainty.”
“Reorganisations, changes in management and changes in job responsibilities all can set off alarm bells as they may signal that one’s job is at stake. New management sets off a lot of different anxieties. Will I like my boss? Will my boss like me? Will I be valued for what I do? Will I have a say in decisions? Do I have to start from square one proving my worth, or will I be respected.”
However, change does not always have to culminate in fear and anxiety. How well organisations handle the process of change and transition and how much we perceive we have control and influence over the change is the key to managing the fear of change.
Therefore, it is perfectly normal to feel fear and be unsettled with change; it is a normal human behavior when we don’t feel totally in control and certain about the future. The unhealthy part occurs with inappropriate and unhelpful responses. Fighting change, presenting a negative attitude or ignoring its meaning. Intelligent, mature and driven employees will manage their fear and look for avenues to adjust to change and thrive in the new environment.
10 Tips for Overcoming Your Fear of Change at Work
- Acknowledge the change. The most important thing to do when change is happening in the workplace is to acknowledge it. Recognising and accepting change is one of the first steps towards managing it.
- Face your fears. When you fear change take some time out for yourself. Writing down these fears in an objective form can stop you dwelling on them. Go through each fear and write down what you would do if that fear came to pass. Knowing you have a back up plan can really help to defuse the emotional anxiety.
- Confront your feelings and seek support. Face your feelings about fear and the transition you are going through, especially when the change is imposed and beyond your control. Change could mean that you have to cope with a loss of co-workers, team, and a project that you really care about. You don’t have to act as a victim, even when you are not in control. The best thing to do is to accept your feelings and then reach out to close colleagues, partner, loved ones and talk to them about what you are feeling.
- Stop the fearful thoughts and replace them with something positive. Fear can come from creating negative thoughts and scenarios in your head about what the future holds. How you are describing the change to yourself? What you see to be the negative aspects of the change? What impact it has on you and your life? The moment you become fearful and have negative thoughts, stop them in their tracks and turn them into something positive. Ask yourself questions. In the past when I handled change really well what did I do? How did I handle it? What actions did I take that really worked for me? How did I deal with the change in my communication with others? How did I manage my mental health? Which personal attributes did I use to turn things into positive? Was I patient? Rational? etc.
- Be flexible and embracing of change. Instead of hiding from your fear and creating defenses to keep it away from you, be open and flexible to taking on new challenges and tasks. Chansky says to approach change with an open attitude of learning. “Even if you don’t like something new in the system, if you are flexible, people will want to work with you, and there is a greater chance of change. If you “rage against the machine, so to speak, no one is going to rush to have your back.”
- Be part of the change. Adopt an attitude of anticipation and excitement. Welcome change as an opportunity. Get involved in new committees and work teams. Be an influencer and driver of change. That way you will feel empowered and less fearful. See the positive in the way forward.
- Communication, communication and more communication. Communication is always important and especially when you face change. Part of the fear of change is the unknown. If the organisation is not communicating change effectively, make it your business to be proactive in finding out more about what the change involves. Don’t sit back. Talk to your boss, your boss’s boss and your co-workers to get their understanding. Don’t make these sessions negative. Instead ask constructive questions to find out meaningful information to help you understand better. Be aware that sometimes when talking to co-works news can be distorted and can be mixed with rumor.
- Reduce Stress and anxiety. In times of stress caused by change we may feel tired and un-energised. This is the time we need to focus on being strong, fit, healthy and resilient. To be resilient you need to be clam and in control so that you are able to make good, clear and rational decisions. Focus on your exercise and nutrition, breath deeply and smile. This doesn’t have to be extensive; 20-30 minutes of meditation; yoga or even walking to clear your head is sufficient.
- Have a sense of meaning. Take time to take stock of how valuable you are to the organisation. Acknowledge your successes and the valuable skills and attributes you offer the organisation. This is perhaps the time to make your self more valuable. Research tells us that valuable employees typically get through changes unscathed, or even better than before.
- Continue to do your work and see the big picture. It is easy during times of reorganisation to sit back and see what will happen tomorrow. It is easy to have that attitude as in some cases the work you are doing might change. However, remember that till you have a new direction you need to focus on achieving your designated goals and tasks. Remember that a great positive attitude should impress a future boss.
The bottom line is, change is inevitable for all organisations today, so you’ll need to overcome your fear of it.
Change can be frightening and disruptive. However, with the right attitude, outlook and actions, you can find opportunities in that change.
Author Bio – Ban Weston
Ban is the Managing Director of wm Consulting founded in 2005 and is qualified in organisational psychology. Ban’s expertise and knowledge covers Organisational Development, Leadership Development, Change Management, Cultural Transformation, Capability & Talent Development and Executive Coaching. Ban works closely with CEOs, Executive Teams, Middle Managers and Team Leaders to accelerate leadership development and team effectiveness.